The Right Combination of Eating Pattern and Bacteria May Limit Cancer Progression

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More and more research supports the fact that what we eat, (or don’t eat) impacts our gut microbiome, the collection of microorganisms (including bacteria) that thrive in our intestines. It’s well known that nutrition plays a significant role in preventing cancers. Diets high in fiber, for example, cut the risk of developing certain cancers such as colorectal cancer (CRC). While these eating patterns can prevent cancer, their role in the progression and treatment of cancer is not well understood.

Recently, a group of researchers from the Luxembourg Center for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) and the Life Sciences Research Unit (LSRU) at the University of Luxembourg discovered that both prebiotics including dietary fiber and probiotics from specific beneficial bacteria, impact the expression of pro-cancerous and drug resistant genes. Due to this combination, metabolic changes occur that affect cancer cell growth and may help treat illnesses like CRC.

Scientists worked with HuMiX (“Human Microbial X (cross)-talk”), an unusual in vitro model of the gut (“gut-on-a-chip”) that allows the growth of human intestinal cells in combination with bacteria in similar conditions to examine the diet-microbiome-host association. Scientists studied the impact of dietary regimens and a specific probiotic on CRC cells.

Compared to individuals' high fiber diets or probiotic treatments, only the combination of fiber and probiotics showed beneficial effects. The researchers and collaborators designed a computer-based metabolic model of the associations between diet, host, and microbiome. In addition, they discovered the impact of combined treatment: downregulation of genes affiliated with CRC and drug-resistance in addition to the self-renewal ability of the cancer cells. Via careful molecular analyses, the researchers discovered the end product of molecules made by the combination, which provides a mechanistic rationale for the beneficial effects discovered.

According to Dr. Kay Greenhaigh, post-doc with the Eco-Systems Biology group at LCSB and lead author of the study, cancer patients are not currently given evidence-based, personalized dietary advice during chemotherapy treatment. Their research provides support for investigating food-microbiome interactions as an adjunctive therapeutic treatment in anti-cancer therapy. Greenhaigh hopes that their research will get to patients and medical practitioners in the field so that more effort is invested in personalized dietary recommendations for cancer patients.

A more integral understanding of the microbiome-host interaction is extremely important when it comes to CRC as it it may lead to new therapies for CRC patients, according to Dr. Elisabeth Letellier, principal researcher within the Molecular Disease Mechanisms at LSRU. The research group in Luxembourg appreciated the collaborative effort of several groups of researchers studying the molecular processes of the microbiome.

While more research is needed in this area, dietitians can assist their clients in reducing CRC risk with the following suggestions...

  1. Reduce red meat and processed meat, which has been linked with CRC.
  2. Eat a diverse diet with several plant-based foods including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
  3. Swap processed grains for whole grains to boost fiber intake.
  4. Choose fermented foods that contain probiotics such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, kefir, and kombucha.
  5. Include yogurt with active cultures in your diet for probiotics.
  6. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about probiotic supplements.

By Lisa Andrews, MED, RD, LD


  1. Wiseman MJ1. Nutrition and cancer: prevention and survival. Br J Nutr. 2018 Sep 14:1-7
  2. Kacy Greenhalgh, Javier Ramiro-Garcia, Almut Heinken, Pit Ullmann, Tamara Bintener, Maria Pires Pacheco, Joanna Baginska, Pranjul Shah, Audrey Frachet, Rashi Halder, Joëlle V. Fritz, Thomas Sauter, Ines Thiele, Serge Haan, Elisabeth Letellier, Paul Wilmes. Integrated In Vitro and In Silico Modeling Delineates the Molecular Effects of a Synbiotic Regimen on Colorectal-Cancer-Derived Cells. Cell Reports, 2019; 27 (5): 1621

Bonus Infographic: Preventing Colon Cancer

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